The Issue of School Choice Overshadows Equitable Funding
In President Donald Trump's recent budget proposal, he announced a 13 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Education while adding $1.4 billion to school choice programs. This move further signals his administration's focus on school choice and vouchers as our nation's education reform. That focus overshadows much-needed change in another area: equitable funding.
Growing up as a public school student in the Chicago suburb of Lockport, Ill., my only choice was the school within our neighborhood's school attendance boundaries. I attended the same elementary school as my great-grandmother, WWII-veteran grandfather, mother, uncle, and brother. Although a few private Catholic elementary schools existed, none of them fought for my enrollment, nor did our public schools' enrollment suffer because of them. I received the type of well-funded public education I wish every student in the country had without families or educators having to fight for it.
But I became a teacher in Chicago public schools in 2003, just as school choice emerged in Chicago. I found that my idyllic education experience was a stark contrast to the uneven and ever-changing experience of my students.
Our public schools pride themselves on options—in fact, the entire district claims to be a district of choice. Students from the far South Side have the option of traveling hours a day to attend a school on the more-affluent North Side that they have been told is better than their neighborhood option. Competition for students is fierce, as both charter and public neighborhood schools have advertisements pasted on school buses in the hopes of filling seats. Our top charter network, Noble Network of Charter Schools, illegally obtained CPS student data to use for recruitment in December 2016.
The problem is that none of the options—neither traditional public nor charter schools in Chicago—offer the equitable education opportunities afforded to students in wealthier Illinois suburbs. I taught in three different public schools of choice in Chicago, all in stark contrast to the high-quality public school I attended. None of them offered safe transportation, up-to-date facilities, appropriate class sizes, or sufficient support staff to meet students' needs.
I spent my first three years of teaching at a neighborhood public school on the far South Side before charter schools entered that neighborhood. We had close to 1,200 students, 95 percent of whom fell below the poverty line. Classes were often overcrowded; the only way to secure new textbooks was through a grant; and there was only one computer lab. The school’s student population has fallen to under 500 since a charter school took over half of the school's building.
In 2007, I began teaching at a small public school in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Englewood that replaced an existing public school there. Students were admitted via a lottery-based system—a school of choice based on luck. We shared the building with a charter school at a time when school choice had begun to explode. Though 95 percent of our students fell below the poverty line and many had experienced trauma from violence, our school only had one counselor and limited access to a nurse and a social worker.
When another charter school moved across the street, the public school saw a decrease in student population and funding. Now, three high schools sit right next to each other, one neighborhood public school and two charter schools. Three other neighborhood high schools nearby all remain under-enrolled.
All six schools are competing for a pool of students that could fit in one or two high schools. Families have a lot of choice, but none of the choices are meeting their children’s needs in the way that schools in wealthy districts with wrap around services are meeting their students' needs.
My current position is at a selective-enrollment public school in the Chicago neighborhood of Englewood that admits students via test scores. Although the school is considered one of the choices for Chicago public school students, those who do not test in do not have the option of attending. We also face equity issues: We had lead in our water fountains this fall, and a leaking roof that caused water damage throughout our building.
The Limitations of Choice
Charter schools in Chicago are also not exempt from problems. Forrest Claypool, the CEO of Chicago public schools, recently announced funding freezes to purchasing school resources for both traditional and charter schools. And yet, despite the overabundance of schools in Chicago and budget woes that may cause them to close three weeks ahead of schedule this school year, 17 charter operators are proposing to open 20 new schools in Chicago. (The expansion is unlikely given that the district put a cap on its total number of schools in the most recent contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.)
My own experience and the state and district budget issues are proof that Chicago does not need more schools. Both the state and the city need to equitably fund and resource the schools that we have. And Chicago is not alone. In many places, such as newly sworn-in Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ home state of Michigan, there is evidence that an overabundance of charter schools can devastate a district.
Funding for All
Education leaders and elected officials must realize that school choice is meaningless without the right resources in all schools. It cannot be the only avenue of school reform. We must instead provide our students with equitable school funding to obtain wraparound services, recruit and retain high-quality teachers, principals, and staff members, and support students’ academic and socioeconomic needs in our existing schools.
DeVos stated last week in a speech to education leaders that more freedom should be given to local and state leadership. Those who hold that power must hold charter schools, as well as private schools that accept vouchers, accountable in the same ways that traditional public schools are in order to provide students with fair choices. I urge policymakers and elected officials on both sides of the aisle to strive to give students in every one of our schools a quality education—without asking them to transfer to a different one.